The end of the school year has a reputation among teachers as something that seems to never arrive, remaining just slightly out of reach for months on end. However, in my experience teaching EFL in Shenzhen, China, quite the opposite has been true. I finished with all of my classes a full month ahead of schedule, so the end of the school year was a sudden surprise for me and all of my classes. At the very end of May, it was brought to my attention that I was to begin administering my final exams for my students the first week of June; upon completing the exams, my school year would be over. This news significantly caught me off guard, as I had been anticipating to work until mid-July, as my local education bureau’s school schedule indicated. Indeed, many teachers commonly finish a week or two before the bureau’s designated date simply as a result of varying school schedules and pacing. However, finishing more than a month early was beyond my expectations. Nonetheless, after processing the fact that I was suddenly at the very end of my first year of teaching English abroad, I quickly shifted mental gears in favor of having plenty of free time to travel more than I had planned.
Format of EFL final exams in China and beyond
As an EFL teacher in China, my primary role is to develop my students’ oral English fluency. Accordingly, the final exams are designed to test their listening and speaking skills in structured conversations; there is no utilization of reading or writing in the exams. When I received word that the exams were to begin in just a few days, I quickly put together a series of conversational questions and prompts for my fourth- and fifth-grade classes. The questions and prompts were taken directly from lessons that we had learned throughout the course of the school year. The format of the exam is very simple: I ask questions in English to a student and he/she responds as well as they can in English. Despite beginning the exams much earlier than anticipated, I still received pressure from the local teachers to complete them as soon as possible – ideally in just one session per class. For context, each session is 42 minutes and there are an average of 55 students per class. Some quick math leads us to the conclusion that I had to test several students at one time if I had any hope of honoring the local teachers’ requests to be finished within one week. Initially, I was testing students in groups of three (though one-on-one examinations would have been a more effective and accurate representation of students’ abilities, in my opinion); this eventually progressed to groups of five and, in classes where students were slower to answer their prompts, groups of seven. Ultimately, despite my best efforts, the examination period lasted for two sessions per class, or a total of two weeks. I was both proud of and pleased with my students’ speaking abilities and their evident development throughout the course of the year.
End-of-year celebrations, or lack thereof
Once each exam was completed, I broke the news to the class that they would no longer be seeing me. Of the 14 classes, most were as surprised as I had been about the suddenness of the news, as well as how early it was happening (the students would remain in school until mid-July, whereas my individual work was finished). There were some tears, many “thank yous,” and one big group photo for each class. And then, nothing. It simply was over. There was no party, no parade, no pomp and circumstance. While it was undoubtedly difficult and emotional to say goodbye to all 750 of my students, I was fortunate to be able to do so knowing that I had achieved the biggest dream of my life by moving to the other side of the world to teach English. Reflecting on my experience teaching in China, I can confidently say that I feel I passed the test.